In the first and second parts of this series, we described the strike package of fighters and supporting aircraft making the first attack in Israel’s air campaign against the Iranian nuclear weapons program. With their weapons delivered, the Israelis must now get safely out of Iranian territory.
Word of the Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities only reached the fighter squadrons as the bombs were falling. Four air bases are in position to intercept the outbound strike: Tactical Airbase (TAB) 4 at Vahdati, TAB 5 at Omidiyeh, TAB 6 at Bushehr, and TAB 7 at Shiraz.
The alert birds at Vahdati are a pair of F-5Es detailed from one the three squadrons based there. Omidiyeh has three F-7 squadrons (Chinese MiG-21 clones), but they are Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC), with no air-to-air training. They launch the alert planes anyway. They’re still fighter pilots, after all. Shiraz is no help. It only has one abbreviated squadron of F-5s, and none of them are on alert.
Bushehr, on Iran’s southern coast, has the best chance, launching two pairs of alert F-4s and an F-14 “Persian Cat.” The F-14 is carrying Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles for self-defense, but the back-seater’s main role is as a fighter intercept controller.
The Iranians still have only the vaguest idea where the strike is heading, probably to the south-southwest, and the F-14’s job is to find it using its AWG-9 radar. Thirty-six years after being delivered to the Shah’s Iran, the F-14’s radar is still the most powerful sensor in the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force.
The silenced Iranian radars now work against Israel as well as Iran. The Israeli eavesdroppers know where interceptors have taken off from, and they can listen to voice reports from the Iranian pilots, but they don’t know the exact positions of the hostile fighters. In a dark sky, flying at 500 – 600 knots, both sides are blindly groping for the other.
The Israeli raid commander can see the signal from the F-14’s AWG-9, and immediately vectors a pair of the fighter escorts to shoot it down, but it’s too late. The Tomcat has spotted the outbound Israeli raid and broadcast its location, course, and speed to the interceptors, who immediately adjust their course. The F-14 driver then immediately shuts down his radar and repositions southwest at full military. He’ll set up for another look in a few minutes.
The jig is up, as far as the Israeli commander’s concerned. There’s no point in concealment, and he orders all fighter escorts and defense suppression aircraft to energize their radars. Sixteen fighters ranged on either side of the outbound strikers immediately sweep the airspace. The F-5s and F-7s, both only armed with IR-homing missiles, are spotted and killed well out of range.
The Bushehr F-4s use a “high-low” tactic, and while the upper pair is quickly found and killed, again outside of range, the lower pair, on burner, gets close enough to each launch a pair of Sparrow missiles at the strikers. The four elderly Sparrow missiles are met with a wall of chaff and jamming, and the second pair of F-4s, committed to guide the Sparrows in, are destroyed, rendering their missiles useless.
The rest of the trip back to base is uneventful, and all aircraft land safely.
This hypothetical account is based on the research, design, and gameplay involved in developing Persian Incursion, a wargame published by Clash of Arms in 2010 and written by Chris Carlson, Jeff Dougherty, and myself. It details both Israeli and Iranian military capabilities in an extended air campaign intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons program. During the design and gameplay, we did our best to reproduce the tactics and techniques each side would use. There are several important points that we came away with, and that appear in this account:
- There can be no Israeli campaign without an arrangement with one of three countries that lie between Israel and Iran. The government of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Iraq must explicitly, if secretly, give the Israelis permission to use their airspace for a period as long as a week. This involves not just the airstrikes, but pre-and post-strike reconnaissance missions, tanker flights, and potentially damaged aircraft and rescue missions.
- The Israeli Air Force outclasses the Iranian Air Force and Air Defense Forces (a separate service). They have better equipment and better training. They’re not just a little better, they’re a lot better.
- In the end, the military outcome doesn’t matter. In the narrative above, I didn’t bother resolving the attack, because those PGMs are really aimed at the minds of the Iranian leadership. To win this campaign, not against a physical enemy but Iranian intentions, the Israelis must demonstrate the ability to not just destroy one installation, but all of them. Easily. With little or no loss.
Those hundred-plus PGMs will almost certainly blow to oblivion the three nuclear facilities at Isfahan, but what will the Iranian Supreme Leader think when he looks at the destruction? Will he conclude that there’s no future in an Iranian nuclear bomb program, or will he just start rebuilding?
And what will he think tomorrow, when a second raid destroys the reactor and heavy water plant at Arak?
And the day after that?